McWhorter’s Mephitological Argument

September 2, 2009 • 6:23 am

Fie on Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and Hitchens!  Their understanding of theology is on the level of a five-year-old; they completely fail to come to grips with all the effluent of sophisticated modern theology.  Take, for example, McWhorter’s Mephitological Argument for the Existence of God, which can be represented as follows:

mephitological theory

Fig. 1.  Graphic demonstration of MMA.  Of what use is half a stink?

This argument was first expounded here (start at the beginning and finish listening — unless you’re a masochist — at 3:00).  So far it has gone completely unrebutted by the “new atheists.”

h/t for graphics: Andrew Berry

24 thoughts on “McWhorter’s Mephitological Argument

  1. The thing’s fouled up, so I haven’t heard exactly what he said, but this is rather disappointing. I really liked McWhorter’s The Power of Babel.

    1. From McWhorter’s blog at TNR, on the discovery of fossil Ida:

      …explaining the emergence of consciousness–and why it happened only to us–is as challenging a question as explaining the origin of life. We can circle around it – Ida, Homo erectus, cooing at children to calm them down–but an empty space always remains.

      Note the “always”, and the arbitrary linkage of one issue with an entirely different one. Theism, perchance?

      1. “…explaining the emergence of consciousness–and why it happened only to us…”

        McWhorter thinks humans are the only conscious beings on earth?
        So he thinks if you torture, say, a dog and it yelps in agony and struggles to get away – it isn’t actually experiencing any pain?!
        That definitely sounds like theism and its Doctrine of the Soul.

  2. One might think that an appropriate response when faced with an “I don’t know” situation might be to read a book by a knowledgable person or at least Google something on the subject. (I just googled “evolution of skunks” and found lots of relevant information.)

    Alternately, you can just go on the air and look like a complete idiot.

  3. the eye
    bacterial flagellum
    blood clotting cascade
    the immune system

    now… proto-skunk!

    The newest variation on the argument from ignorance: I don’t understand how evolution could have produced X, therefore Jebus.

  4. HAHAHAHA Coyne bringin’ teh pain! I love it! Will be sure to use this one on all those pesky Christians who keep haranguing me wanting to “talk” to me. Unfortunately, I think the joke might be lost on them…

  5. Don’t you find his abuse of language significant? McWhorter describes using his skunk argument and says people start “screaming” at him for it.

    Somehow I doubt anyone screamed. More likely they showed some justified indignation at such lazy jaw-dropping ignorance.

    As Ray Moscow says, this is an academic who could easily find the answer, especially as he says he’s “always” thought about it.

    If this doesn’t become the classic example of Dawkins’ ‘Argument From Personal Incredulity’ I don’t know what would.

  6. What’s funny is that I suspect even Behe thought that was an absurd example. His “irreducibly complex” examples have always been of the biochemical cellular sort. It’s always dangerous to give credit of any kind to such people, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that Behe was groaning on the inside at having to listen to someone suggest that the skunk’s anal scent glands were irreducibly complex.
    Of course, suspecting that someone as willfully blind as Behe found McWorter’s example ridiculous shows just how painfully stupid such an example is.

  7. Any other person, or “group” would have given up on an “idea” by now after being so severely put to shame on so many occasions. Instead, they come up with exponentially more ignorant “arguments” and boast them as if they’ve finally found a trump card.

    It becomes increasingly more difficult not to be irritated by things like this. Sure, it’s funny, but you have to remember for every one of us that watches that and laughs, there are people watching it thinking “I never thought about that, that’s so true!!!”.


    1. I had the same feeling; I grew literally dizzy as I listened to McWhorter, someone I’ve respected for years, spout this nonsense.

      The MMA graphic has provided healing laughter, though…

  8. I wish that someone in a public position would ask why it is OK to believe without an extensive understanding of this sophisticated theology. The implication of asserting that you have to thoroughly study theology in order to honestly say that none of the gods are likely to be real also implies that you have to thoroughly study it to be able to believe honestly. Are not then all of the souls of even sincere believers in jeopardy due to a lack of understanding of exactly what it is that they say they believe?

    I think this would be an interesting thing to see fielded publicly. I’m sure there is some answer as satisfying intellectually as theology itself that they would offer up but I’d be interested in seeing what it looks like.

  9. Around 6:30 the “we don’t see random mutation” notion is kind of funny, given the recent Y-chromosome study.

    Around 7:30 – Apparently malaria is caused by a single celled organism? Thanks for clarifying, Michael – I was totally confused.

    Apparently “fossil record” doesn’t count as observational data on transitional forms? Gotcha.

    The usual “it can’t just be random” argument over and over again…

    But poking fun at the little stuff isn’t why you should watch this from start to end.

    There’s actually a lot of interesting things Behe says about no proof for ID, redefining “irreducible complexity” so he can still talk about the bacterial flagellum and blood clotting cascade as irreducibly complex, and so on. Documenting this sort of waffling and the “evolution of intelligent design” – so to speak – is well worth doing, and this vid does it quite well.

    Can’t wait to see everyone breaking down this discussion word by word, idea by idea.

    1. Oops – scratch that malaria comment – I was going to go on a tangent about biochemists talking about biology (e.g. the skunk example) but didn’t nix all of it.

  10. That video’s on the same level as asking a chemist discuss poetry, altho I expect some could do a better job.

    Reading between the lines of what he imagines to be a cogent argument in re. skunk odorant molecules, McW seems to suppose that there can be only one odorant compound – either you have it or you don’t, and furthermore there’s only one compound that smells at all like that. First, it’s spectacularly inane to suppose that only one compound is capable of smelling, and ta-friggin’-da – not only is there more than one mercaptan as expected, but it seems you can distinguish skunk species by their mercaptan composition:

    Now had he only started babbling about snake (or for me even better, cone snail) venom, areas of far more active investigation:
    it would have been a lot easier to mobilize some info.

  11. In my third year “Atheism, Skepticism, and Religous Faith,” university course (Taught by a theologian) I wrote my term paper on why there is no God. I attacked the usual holes in theists logic. My professor responded by saying that I took the same approach as the New Atheists who are not theologians and set up a straw-man argument about God that I easily destroyed. Funny, because the God I attacked is the God that most people in Western society believe in; a straw-man indeed.

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